The Resurrection of Jesus: An Unlikely Easter Conversation

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally

One Easter, a relative cornered me at a family reunion and wanted to talk about the resurrection of Jesus. Let’s just call her my dear Aunt Sally. Some people try to stay away from politics and religion a parties. Not Aunt Sally. :-)

Aunt Sally was Religious Studies major and she started off by telling me that Jesus didn’t come back from the dead in any real sense–that the story of Jesus’ resurrection just emerged over decades after the crucifixion. She said that Jewish peasants who missed Jesus and needed a Messiah figure basically made the whole thing up–probably because it helped them feel better emotionally and things like that.

But she said something else, too. She said that it doesn’t really matter if the resurrection of Jesus actually  happened. After all, can’t we draw inspiration from a story even if it’s not true?

In this post, I’ll share how you can respond to these two challenges:

  1. It doesn’t matter if Jesus really rose from the dead
  2. The story of the resurrection of Jesus emerged over decades after the crucifixion

Does it really matter if the resurrection of Jesus is a total lie? I’ll bet you’ve heard this kind of question before: “Can’t we draw inspiration from a story even if it’s not true?”

Jesus and the Truman Show

This reminds me of an old Jim Carry movie: “The Truman Show.” If you’ve seen the film, you might remember that Truman basically lived the perfect life. But he had no clue that he was part of this fantasy world that was made up by the people who produced the Truman Show. Truman had no clue his view of the world was built on a total lie. Now I guess you could say, “What does it really matter?” I mean, he’s happy, right? But Truman got suspicious and he tried to figure out what’s going on. And I don’t blame him. I mean, what would you do? Wouldn’t you want to know if your best friends were a bunch of fakes? If your idea of the world was based on a total lie? I would. That’s because the truth matters–especially when we’re talking about spiritual stuff. The apostle Paul thought so, too. Here’s what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14-17 (ESV):

If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain…and your faith is in vain…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

Paul wasn’t a fan of drawing inspiration from fiction. He was convinced that if Jesus didn’t come back from the dead in any real sense, the entire faith tradition is a waste of time–and that Christian religion is based on a total lie. As a Christian, I’ve got to be OK with saying that if the resurrection of Jesus was faked, we’re in the same kind of spot that Truman was. We wouldn’t have hope in anything real. In fact, we’d be totally hopeless. Our worldview would be based on a total lie.

You might consider sharing this illustration and idea with a skeptical family member who asks something like, “Can’t we draw inspiration from a story even if it’s not true?” on Easter Sunday.

It’s interesting that virtually every critical scholar believes that 1 Corinthians is an authentic letter of Paul. Even more, that Paul’s conversion is a fact of history.

Paul and History

Christians and non-Christian scholars see the historical importance of Paul’s writings. I was reminded of this last week, when a Jewish author named Amy-Jill Levine (who teaches New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School) was quoted on CNN’s Belief Blog:

The best source on the period for Jewish history other than (the first-century historian) Josephus is the New Testament… It’s one of those ironies of history that the only Pharisee writing in the Second Temple period from whom we have records is Paul of Tarsus.

Paul says he persecuted Christians, threw them in jail and had no problem with people who killed Christians. But then, Paul suddenly became a Christian himself. Paul’s conversion is a fact of history. And it makes historians ask, “Why did someone who hated Jesus’ followers become a Christian all of a sudden?”

When people asked Paul himself, he said it was because he was convinced that he had a real experience of the risen Jesus. He wrote this about in his letters to people living in Corinth, Galatia and Philppi. Paul was originally a skeptic and an enemy of the church–certainly no friend of Jesus. But he put himself in harm’s way over and over again just for saying that the resurrection of Jesus was true—that he actually saw Jesus alive after the crucifixion.

Now, let’s turn to Aunt Sally’s second idea, that the story of the resurrection of Jesus emerged over decades after the crucifixion. But what about this?

Early Reports of the Resurrection of Jesus

Jesus died in 30 A.D. and most scholars say Paul’s conversion happened about 2 years after that. Critics also believe that 3 years after this, Paul made a special visit to Peter and James, where he discovered an early Christian creed that reports the resurrection of Jesus–something that was around way before the New Testament was even written. In 1st Corinthians 15, scholars believe that Paul quoted an early creed This is how Rabbis would pass on tradition. Creeds are kind of like the lyrics to a song that you can’t get out of your head. They’re a way to preserve and memorize important information. This creed says Jesus appeared to his disciples and others. Here’s the quote Paul used (1 Corinthians 15:3-7):

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

An agnostic historian, Gerd Ludemann, says this creed was being used within 2 years after the crucifixion. In fact, some very well-respected scholars are now saying that the teaching of the Resurrection and the formulation of this creed started in 30 A.D. For example, James D.G. Dunn–one of today’s leading biblical scholars–says the teaching of the resurrection of Jesus and the formulation of this creed began no later than 6 months after Jesus’ crucifixion.

So it’s just not true that the story of Jesus’ resurrection emerged over decades after the crucifixion. It wasn’t made up by Jewish peasants who missed Jesus and needed a Messiah figure. Paul was a skeptic and an enemy of the church. He didn’t miss Jesus one bit. And it certainly didn’t help him out emotionally when he was persecuted and jailed for insisting that his testimony was true–that he was an eyewitness of the risen Jesus.

Not the Stuff of Legend

Still, some people continue to suggest that the resurrection of Jesus is basically the stuff of legend, like Osiris and Isis. Could Jesus actually be nothing more than a fictional character in religious mythology? No way. Another agnostic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, was quoted by The Washington Post last week:

The celebration of Jesus’ death by crucifixion from the very early days of the Christian movement is, odd as it might seem, secure evidence that Jesus in fact really did exist…Those who deny that Jesus ever even existed…typically claim that he was invented by early Christians in imitation of pagan gods and demi-gods who, like Jesus, but before him, were said to have died and risen again. This view is wrong on all scores.

How the Story Ends

So let me tell you what happened in my conversation with Aunt Sally. Here’s how it ended: She said that the story of the resurrection of Jesus probably just emerged over the decades from Jewish peasants with kind of an underdog mentality–maybe people who missed Jesus or needed a Messiah figure. And it helped them feel better emotionally and things like that.

We talked about Paul for a bit and she finally ended up saying, “OK. I don’t know what happened…But something happened.” This is where a lot of our skeptical friends and family members may end up. Because I really haven’t found a plausible, naturalistic explanation that can account for all of the historical facts in this case. But this event has huge implications, not just for Christians, but for everyone.

On Easter Sunday, we’re not commemorating the resurrection of John Doe. We’re celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And given the context of his life, it seems to say something about who he is and claims that he made.

The Goal of Religious Studies

Aunt Sally was a Religious Studies major. I don’t know where she heard some of these things, but I do know that one of the stated goals of her program is to “cultivate understanding of and respect for religious diversity and non-religious perspectives.” Reminds me of another quote from Levine, who emphasized mutual respect on CNN’s Belief Blog last week:

Speaking personally as a Jew, if I want my neighbors to respect Judaism, which means knowing something about Jewish history, scripture and tradition, I owe my Christian neighbors the same courtesy. It’s a matter of respect.

As a World Religion professor at a couple of universities, I believe students of religion should do the hard work of fact-finding, seek to understand the source material, and honestly investigate the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection reports with an open mind. As a Christian, I believe every Christian needs to be prepared to talk about the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ—our Living Hope.

This article first appeared here: The Resurrection of Jesus. Copyright © 2012 by Mikel Del Rosario. All Rights Reserved.


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